Let’s get ready to RuuuuUUUUUMMMBLE!!!
Its 2019 and in the New England Patriots training camp there is another riveting contest to battle for just one spot on the roster. It is the incredible, the stupendous, the amazing: Punter Battle. In here we shall take a look at each of the combatants; their weaknesses, strengths and chances of claiming the spot as their own.
Name: Ryan Allen
Special abilities: Left-footed kicker
In the red corner! We have the veteran of many a Punter Battle. He is a cagey and wily old timer. Allen had been a stalwart of the special teams unit since the day he signed as an undrafted free agent. He knows a thing or two about fighting for his job, as he unseated the previous incumbent and fan favorite - Zoltan Mesko. Known more for his accuracy and ability to kick the correct ball for the coverage units. Evaluating a punters leg strength that plays on a good offense is difficult. They often have a short field and don’t have the need to boom a kick sky-high. They don’t want to outkick their coverage units and accuracy is key.
Ryan Allen has the trust of the coaching staff. He has been there and done that in many different situations. Whether it’s sitting on the bench waiting for a call that never comes like in Super Bowl LII against Philadelphia. Or, as in Super Bowl LIII he kicked five times for 215 yards, including putting the Rams inside the ten yard line three times! Plus for his secret weapon he is a left-footed kicker. The difference is subtle but noticeable.
For as much as Bill Belichick will state that it is a “coincidence” about his preference for left-footed punters, it is there. Is it because there are less of them? In 2017, NFL teams had ten of the southfoots on rosters. This is well above the figure from 2000, when just five teams went with them. Even some head coaches will bring in a different punter on the weeks that they play a good one in order for the returners to get some practice. This is because they spin the ball in a different direction prior to kicking it, and can cause differences in flight paths. There has even been some studies to suggest that the muff rate for punts is 1% higher. In a game of inches, coaches will exploit any avenue.
Whatever the reason, Ryan Allen has been a very good player for the team in some very high stakes situations. He is more than ready to defend his spot against any newcomers.
Name: Jake Bailey
Age: 22 years old
Special abilities: Kickoff experience
And the challenger of the Punter Battle is in the blue corner! Mr. Bailey hails from Stanford University. He is a smaller framed kicker that has a big leg. Producing long hang times and fair catches could be a valuable asset in today's punting game, and he has averaged 21 of them in each of his final two years in college. His leg explosion also produced a long of 84 yard punt (Good Lord!) and an average of over 44 yards. This is good for the upper echelons of all the young players.
His special ability of being able to handle kick off duties, and be an emergency field goal kicker is part of an emerging trend in the NFL. Adam Vinatieri is still kicking (oh, man that’s funny) at the ripe old age of 46, in part due to a decreased workload on kickoffs. Bailey was able to produce over 100 touchbacks over his junior and senior years. If his ability carries over into the NFL then it could be a valuable asset. Being an emergency backup to Stephen Gostkowski will reduce the chance of being hamstrung for a game in the event of an injury.
If a team’s kicker suffers an injury and is unable to play, the offense most likely undergoes changes. Forcing the team to get closer or forgoing kicks in order to score extra points or field goals introduces an added level of difficulty. If Belichick could have some confidence in avoiding that uncertainty he would be a very happy camper, he may even smile.
If you think about it, the kickoff game is closer to a punting sequence than it is to a field goal or extra point try. Generally, accuracy is not as rigorous, thirds of the field or out of the back of the endzone is preferred. There is much more running, as the kicker is encouraged to get down the field and occasionally make a tackle. These factors are taxing on an aging body. And while at 35 Gostkowski still has the the accuracy and mentality to be an elite kicker, the team would do well to reduce stresses in as many other areas as possible.
The Score Card
Bill Belichick values versatility and levels of cross-training. Special teams are an area that bottle-necks this philosophy. Many of the players that are on the third unit have back up duties on either offense or defense. Wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends all are expected to have a limited grasp on their position designation for an emergency. The core parts of the kicking game fly in the face of this. Long snappers, punters and place kickers all have such a specialized role that its difficult to crosstrain.
Belichick has played games with roster construction before, even going so far as not having a long snapper for a few days to start the season. If he could reduce the need for three spots on the 46 man game day roster dedicated solely to kicking aspect he would give birth to kittens. I think that’s how it goes? If he cannot eliminate a spot he will be happy in building some added levels of redundancy in order to weather any contingencies.
There is a salary cap factor to evaluate as well. Ryan Allen signed a one year deal at $1.5 Million. This is very much in the middle of punter salaries in the NFL. They will be forced to renegotiate another deal next season in the event that they choose to keep him. By virtue of his fifth round selection, Jake Bailey signed a four year $2.75 Million pact. This provides cost control for the team over an extended time frame. As an added thought, the Patriots traded a pick to move up several spots in order to secure the kicker. This could just be due to the sheer number of picks the Patriots had and they wanted to use them. Or, it could be that they really valued him as a prospect.
Who wins the Punter Battle?
So who gets the spot? I’m going to give the edge to rookie Jake Bailey. The accuracy and slightly increased difficulty of catching a left-footed punt is valuable. And Ryan Allen's big game experience and mentality will make the coaching staff comfortable. The fact remains that a punter is only called upon for 3-7 plays a game for his leg. If you can expand on his ability to use his leg, and at the same time increase the effectiveness and shelf life of another very valuable member of the team in Gostkowski, you have to try it.
Add into it the rookie contract and I think the choice is clear. If Bailey is proficient in punting and looks to be getting better in the other areas of his game he should secure a roster spot for the 2019 season. His contract structure is an added bonus. It will help even out and budget the special teams salary cap considerations. In this Punter Battle the Challenger should have his hands raised at the end.